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Is Lee Kuan Yew a Great Leader or Dictator?

Free «Is Lee Kuan Yew a Great Leader or Dictator?» Essay Sample


Lee Kwan Yew was the longest serving prime minister of Singapore from 1959 to 1990. He is also the longest serving leader in the modern world. Under his leadership, the country underwent key transformations and became the most prosperous nation in the South East Asian region (Ramasamy 1998). Lee transformed Singapore from the third world to first world status. Singapore’s income levels rose steadily to those above many European countries in less than 50 years. Still under his leadership, accessibility and quality of education were elevated to the levels enjoyed in the western countries. He also boosted trade through the creation of a favorable tax regime, which through trade lowered the unemployment level to 3%. He also fostered environmental sustainability as part of the developmental agenda, which made Singapore an exceedingly clean and green metropolitan area (Lee, Allison, Blackwill & Wyne 2012). Despite all the achievements, Lee has had his downside and is viewed by some as a totalitarian dictator.  There are allegations of detentions without trial, gerrymandering, lack of freedom of speech and nepotism towards his government. These accusations have made him and his government a gross violator of civil rights. This paper will explore the leadership achievements of Lee and the socio-economic and political developments as a demonstration of great leadership. On the other hand, the paper will also explore instances where Lee has been viewed as an authoritarian ruler.

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Lee Kwan Yew’s Background and Rise to Power

Lee was born in Singapore on September, 1923 to an affluent Chinese family that had lived in Singapore since 1800s (McCarthy 2006). He studied at Fitzwilliam College in Cambridge, UK after the WWII. In 1950, Lee received his degree in England but left to practice law in his country (McCarthy 2006). At this time, Singapore was still an important British colony in the South Eastern Asia and a home to the British Naval base for the Far East. Like other British colonies, the country was ruled by the governor with the assistance of the legislative council. The members of this council were appointed by the governor and not elected by the people. For this reason, the legislative council comprised of affluent and influential immigrant Chinese businessmen. In the 1950s, Singaporeans realized the need for constitutional reforms. The issue reached the public domain and created a stage for a new political era (McCarthy 2006).

Lee saw an opportunity and joined other people to challenge the government and its skewed structure. He later founded his own party. People’s Action Party (PAP) was born with Lee as the general secretary in 1954. In the following year, a new constitution was introduced increasing the number of elected seats to 25 from 32, and the remaining deficit would be filled through the appointment of 7 members. During the following elections, the Labor Front – the party formed by Lee’s earlier colleagues – won 13 seats, while PAP won only three positions.  This choice became a good platform for Lee to begin his political career. The representation of PAP in the council made him travel to London as part of the delegation in quest of self-governance for Singapore in 1956. The deliberations botched, which sparked a wave of unrests in Singapore throughout the year. Despite the occurrences, Lee went back to London, and negotiations concerning self-governance resumed. In the following year Lee played a pivotal role in the negotiations of Singapore becoming an independent state. He helped lay out the structure of Singapore as an independent state and assisted with the formulation of new constitution for self-governance.

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The new constitution anchored free and fair elections that would be held later in 1950.  This was an opportunity for several locals to vie for the positions of leadership. Lee’s campaign was against colonialism and communism. He also called for across-the-board social reforms and proposed to construct a federation with neighboring countries. The campaign agenda and Lee’s ambition brought a landslide victory to his party in the elections, where PAP got a decisive victory and guarded 43 out of the 51 seats in the assembly. Singapore gained independence and could run all of its internal affairs with exception of defense and foreign affairs. Lee became the first prime minister of independent Singapore.

Lee as the Prime Minister of Singapore

As a newly sworn in prime minister of independent Singapore, Lee hit the ground running the developmental agenda. This fact saved Singapore a lot of time and resources that other countries lost due to disillusionment of their first leaders in the post-independent era. Lee’s agenda appeared to be able lead the country to achieving the necessary goals. Lee begun by introducing a comprehensive five-year action plan, which would set the country firmly onto the developmental path. His plan focused on the renewal of the urban areas to make them more functional and responsive to the dynamic needs of his country (Lee 1991). At the same time begun the construction of public housing. It was a major step in boosting the income levels of the locals. Due to these huge projects, people began to receive more income, which would be utilized by some to establish micro entrepreneurial ventures. The refurbished and improved urban structures were crucial, as they attracted more tourists and also gave the country a competitive edge in attracting investors. At the same time, the local people gained pride for their nation and would engage more in creative production (Lee 1991).

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Lee’s five-year action plan also advocated and availed more rights for women. This is one area where developing countries lost as they tried to develop. Women rights were ignored, which made them less empowered in the sphere of economic improvement. Given that women make slightly above 50% of many countries, leaving them behind in development means that half of the population would be left out. Lee also advocated the introduction of sweeping reforms in the educational sector. This approach led to affordable and accessible education for the public, which was very crucial for the development of Singapore. At the same time, the quality of education was steadily improving to cater a dynamic country. One of the most crucial aspects of Lee’s action plan, which lead to rapid development of Singapore, was industrialization. Lee focused on Singapore’s industrialization from the very beginning. It provided employment, commodities and other products to the population as well as allowed the country to attain a favorable balance of trade (Pike 2010).

Singapore, like Japan, is a small country with very limited natural resources. At the same time, this country lacks a population that would generate adequate internal demand necessary for industrialization. Still, it was a poor third world country with dilapidated roads and other structures that needed rehabilitation after gaining independence. The cost of capital for industrialization was very high, as the country had a GNP of barely $320 in 1960. Low-end business was the backbone of its economy in the early 1960s (Pike 2010). Very few industries existed at that time and produced only for the local consumption. There was basically no room for direct/indirect foreign investment due to the combination of abovementioned factors. Successful transformation required planning and creating of conditions necessary for effective industrial development.

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In the course of development of a friendly industrial environment, Lee proposed and oversaw the establishment of industrial estates, the first of which was Jurong Industrial Estate. After the establishment of such entities, the improvement of urban centers and development of public housing, the country was able to experience a period of rapid industrialization. It was further boosted by the improved quality and accessibility of education, which supplied the required manpower. Newly gained rights of women enabled them to participate adequately in the industrial revolution bringing equality to the communities (Lee 2014).

The industrial development convinced the country that real development was achievable. In the heights of beaming success and raising expectations, the government under the leadership of Prime Minister Lee started Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB) with a budget allocation of $100 million (Lee 2014). This board had a responsibility of attracting foreign investors through various means, including creating an attractive internal environment for foreign investment and showcasing what Singapore had to offer in terms of investment opportunities.

As a result, the aforementioned changes created a large boost in Singapore’s industrial development, which led to the creation of Singapore Industrialization Program. The initial industries dealt with textiles, garment production, hair wigs among others. Later on, capital and technology intensive factories dealing with petroleum and steel were constructed. The specific firms included Steel Mills, Shell Eastern Petroleum and National Iron. It was not long before the success of the above efforts begun to pay off. For instance, the local demand for products increased rapidly. At the same time, the possibility of increased production and selling to the external markets was noticed. The possibilities included transporting raw materials from Malaysia for reduced prices. Other opportunities were penetrating the international market in order to enlarge the industrial base. This led to the opening of EBD Centers in Hong Kong, New York to better link potential investors and markets (Lee 2014).

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At the time of rapid internal development, Lee was also working on regional integration of the neighboring countries. He called for and supported the merger between Singapore and Malaysia using the popular referendum of 1962, in which 70% supported the union (Josey 2013).  The same happened with the Malayan Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, who proposed a larger federation including Sarawak and Sabah. Lee supported the permanent end of British rule in the whole region. As a result, Singapore joined the Federation of Malaysia. The popularity of Lee and his PAP party was confirmed in the 1963 election, where the party retained control in the parliament and Lee maintained his premiership (Josey 2013).

In August 1965, Lee officially signed opted out of the Malaysian Federation. Lee had been very passionate about the union, as it could assist Singapore in with the increased availability of natural resources, since Singapore had none. The withdrawal of Singapore from this union was an emotional affair for Lee, while Malaysia finally declared independence on August 7, 1965. The urgent need for Singapore to have a large economy to defend its borders and provide opportunities to the locals dawned on Lee more than before he became more nationalistic and aggressive in his plans. He was focused on the programs to transform Singapore into a key exporter of finished goods. He enhanced the attempts of encouraging local investments in addition to elevating living standards of all workers.

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Education in Singapore

The quality and the availability of education in Singapore are higher than in any neighboring country. Additionally, its responsiveness is globally competitive. The system was formulated after WWII and developed during the tenure of Prime Minister Lee to provide the market with required skills and competencies. Education in Singapore is run by the Ministry of Education (MOE). The MOE is in charge of establishment, improvement and supervision of state schools, which are funded by the government. This ministry also supervises and advices the management of private schools. The autonomy of school curriculum, the scope and the extent of government aid and capitalization, the admission policy and the tuition load vary due to the different needs of schools.

For a long time, the budgetary allocation for education has been around 20% of the national budget. This shows the government’s commitment to the improvement of education. Additionally, the subsidization of education does not only apply to the state schools, but also to some selected private schools, to bridge the gap between quality and availability (Lee & Chua 2005). To reduce the disparity of access to education, the government made the primary education compulsory in 2000. However, various exemptions were availed for children with disabilities and those undertaking fulltime religious studies. It is a criminal offence for a parent to fail to take a child to school or to fail to ensure regular attendance. At the same time, the secondary and tertiary education have been made accessible, affordable and responsive to the various needs of the market. The system allows learners to specialize at an early age, which increases their levels of focus (Lee & Chua 2005).

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Tax Regime

The main reason why many investors find Singapore very attractive is the favorable tax regime. Additionally, the tax payment and collection is synchronized and made efficient in that there is no over taxation or double taxation. Since the early 1960s, the government of Prime Minister Lee made a deliberate effort to bring in many investors. One of the steps that were taken included lowering and synchronizing taxation so that the overall amount of taxes was low. This feature has been maintained until now, the cost of starting and operating a business in Singapore remains low (Dept I. M. F. A. P. 2014). The corporate and personal taxes remain competitive on the global level. This characteristic makes the country a preferred trade and investment destination, as it increases the chances of success of new ventures. The tax regime also guarantees mechanisms for tax relief. At the same time, capital gain tax is not charged in Singapore, and investors do not feel ‘punished’ for having their capital appreciate over time, which makes Singapore attractive for entrepreneurs who may wish to accumulate wealth over time (Lee 2012).

Another feature of the taxation system of Singapore is efficiency. Singapore has one tire system of taxation that does not only make tax paying a one-stop activity, but also reduces instances of duplication in taxes. The result is the entire tax environment becoming very attractive and efficient. Singapore also has negotiated and signed many double tax treaties with other countries, which protect investors.

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Lee and Masses

The former Prime Minister Lee was to create a personality that was very much trusted by the masses, as he had been responsive to the needs of Singaporeans. In the revolts of 1964, for instance, the workers demonstrated concern over poor working conditions. At the same time, the general public demanded the country to exit the Malaysian Federation (Lee 1990). None demonstrated against Lee, as the next elections would confirm (Dept I. M. F. A. P. 2014). It has also been found out that the masses rather sided with Lee than other politicians from the opposition. This fact was confirmed in 1966, when the members of the opposition decided to boycott parliament in protest against lee’s policies. However, the members of the public did the unexpected. The opposition did that to win sympathy from the electorate. On the contrary, the electorate rewarded Lee’s PAP party by voting in all members of the assembly from PAP. In addition, this happened in four consecutive elections between 1968 and 1980. This shows the confidence that people had in Lee.

Atrocities Committed During Lee’s Regime

Lee was a leader with a clear mind, who in all circumstances and at all costs wanted to see the country prosper. This feature has made him appear like an authoritarian ruler. He has was the longest serving minister who ruled for half a century, 30 years of which he was the prime minister. Critics may have chosen to view holding onto the power for that long as dictatorship. However, it is very important to note that his party was subsequently elected by the citizens in free and fair elections. In the entire Asia and across the globe, he is a renowned leader with keen sense of intellect (Phang 1990). Due to his intelligence and clear sense of vision and direction, he has been seen to forcefully direct the country along the path of prosperity. The morality of such action is debatable, but the results are a refined first world country developed from a poor colonial state in less than half a century. There were instances that the government of the former Prime Minister Lee was accused of using extreme force against those with dissenting political opinion. Hostility has been directed towards those who believed in communism, as Lee believed in the principles of capitalism, which he has used for his campaign strategy (Lee & Han 2011).

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One instance of gross violations of civil rights was the Operation Spectrum conducted in 1987 by a faction of the security force. These operations led to the accusation 16 people who were believed to have been propagating the Marxist’s conspiracy in an alleged attempt to challenge the existing socio-political system in Singapore. These individuals were detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA) for using tactics aimed at promoting and introducing communism in the country (Singapore 1985). This occasion was followed by arrest of six more ‘instigators’ and the total number of people detained rose to 22. 6 of them were catholic workers educated in England, some were overseas graduates, and the rest were theatre practitioners and other professionals. The group never experienced trial. The government stated that the intention was to eradicate communist thinking. The architect of the whole plot was Tan Wah Piow, who at that time had been in exile in London. His appointed man in Singapore was Vincent Cheng, who worked in the Catholic Church in the Peace and Justice Commission (Singapore 1985). He was believed to be recruiting and attracting opposing opportunistic groups, the law society as well as student organizations to cause uprisings. Later, the detainees were released and accused the government of torture and violations of human rights. They also accused the government of forcing them to confess. Later on, nine of them were rearrested, detained again and only released after signing an agreement of withdrawing the statements earlier made to the media (Kamaludeen & Turner 2014).

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